Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
June 2018

Title: Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing
Author: David Naimon
Publisher: Tin House Books

It didn’t take much to sell me on the idea of this book. For one, I think Le Guin has written some of the best science fiction novels of the last fifty years, and I also think she’s penned top-notch commentary on the field. Then too, I’m partial to books of conversations with science fiction writers: here, for instance, I recommend seven favorites. One of those is in fact Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Carl Freedman, which conveniently collects various interviews on different subjects, conducted at different times, under one set of covers. Finally, I also enjoy books about the writing craft. So the notion of a transcription of David Naimon’s conversations with Le Guin on writing appealed to me in three different ways. Did the actual book satisfy?

After a brief “Introduction” by Le Guin we’re presented with three different conversations, “On Fiction,” “On Poetry” and “On Nonfiction.” The first two were conducted in a recording room of the station KBOO, the last one in Le Guin’s house. It quickly becomes clear that Naimon possesses the qualities necessary to be an excellent tour-guide to Le Guin’s ideas, and to draw her into the dialogues at hand. He’s highly knowledgeable of her work—not only the obvious novelistic highlights, but also her poetry, and reviews, and even speeches—and is often able to produce apposite quotations that help drive the conversation along. He’s thoughtful in his approach, clearly having planned out in advance some of the topics he wants them to delve into, but leaving space for the natural, improvisational tenor that characterizes the best exchanges, making them feel lively to the reader.

Le Guin makes clear in her opening remarks that she can usually tell “within a question or two” if an interview will be productive or frustrating. Later she also notes: “That I know the immensity of my ignorance doesn’t mean I like to display it. I’m grateful to an interviewer who respects the limits of my learning and my intellect.” She describes getting past some initial shyness with Naimon, and characterizes their ensuing dialogues as “a good badminton rally”—that is, one in which the birdie is kept in the air. And true enough, throughout the three conversations Le Guin is at her brilliant, exacting, and sly best. She and Naimon “talk shop” about a range of interesting subjects, including pronoun use, point of view, learning grammar on the way to becoming a writer, the disproportionate erasure or exclusion of women from literary canons, prose rhythm, poetic forms and effects, the influence of Taoism and Buddhism on Le Guin’s work, her translations, and questions of commerce versus art, as well as cultural appropriation. To aid with the flow, we get some inserts with quotes from writers like Virginia Woolf and J. R. R. Tolkien, as well as some of Le Guin’s poems and excerpts from her non-fiction that directly tie to the observations being made.

Some of my favorite moments include an examination of the notion that language mirrors society, the praise of writers like Grace Paley or Gabriela Mistral, who will likely be discoveries for many readers, and an extended discussion by Le Guin (pages 48–49) about the start of her writing career and the discovery that in science fiction markets “there was an open mind” that she hadn’t encountered in mainstream publications. The generally easygoing nature of the conversations doesn’t mean that Le Guin automatically agrees with Naimon’s observations. She pushes back on some of his statements (“I don’t know if you can call language ‘technology,’” p. 68) and sometimes he returns to similar ideas later (“You pushed back and said that. . .” p. 106) to explore new takes. These moments make the conversations feel vital and authentic.

There is the occasional repetition, as in page 103, which essentially replicates comments from pages 85–86, and sometimes I wish Naimon would redirect a bit more. When he asks Le Guin about her “cherished poets,” for example, Le Guin talks at length about Rilke, and then mentions Mistral, but surely there were others? Few mentions are made of Le Guin’s short fiction. Unfortunately, the last of the three conversations is the weakest, and despite ending on an endearingly brazen note, it also comes across as somewhat anticlimactic. One can quibble with the placement of certain questions. On page 131, for example, Naimon asks: “What are some of the common pitfalls or particular annoyances you have with writers who try their hand at sci-fi or fantasy from outside the field?” While this question is posed within the context of a discussion of reviews, and is thus part of the nonfiction conversation, it could have just as easily fit in the conversation on fiction.

My greatest objection, though, turns out to be a compliment in disguise: I wish this book were longer. It’s a delight to listen in on these exchanges, and Naimon has done us a great service. I’m grateful to have this final glimpse into the mind of one of our foremost writers—which doubles as an excellent introduction to her vast body of excellent work.

Title: Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction
Editors: Bill Campbell and Francesco Verso
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing

In his Foreword to this anthology of international science fiction, co-editor Bill Campbell notes that the book includes “authors from India, Greece, Zimbabwe, and many other countries—including the USA, of course.” He goes on to say: “Some of the authors may be familiar to you (like James Patrick Kelly and Ekaterina Sedia) while others (like Clelia Farris's first-ever English translation with “Creative Surgery”) may come as a very welcome surprise.” That was certainly my experience. Going in I was only familiar with Kelly and Sedia, and though I knew of Carlos Hernandez, I’d never actually read him. What a joy, then, to discover so many authors. Though these stories are reprints, they were new to me. Francesco Verso, the anthology’s other co-editor, writes in his Introduction about researching possible futures in terms of “multiculturalism, socio-technological speculation and cross-media.” This anthology certainly triumphs in the first of those two aspects, and I’m intrigued to see what Verso might cook up for us in terms of cross-media. Now, on to the stories themselves.

Xia Jia’s “Tongtong’s Summer” is the collection opener and one of the standouts. In sparse, evocative prose, Jia creates a memorable meditation on ageing and how future technology—in this case telepresence—might affect the relationship between the young and the old. The link between history and the values of the society depicted in the story further amplify this sense of temporal dialogue. At one point, for instance, we’re told that if a certain plan succeeds, “it would be a step to bring about the kind of golden age envisioned by Confucius millennia ago.” Through its finely rendered characters “Tongton’s Summer” effectively reminds us of the universality of certain human needs and desires.

Nina Munteanu’s “The Way of Water” is perhaps more esoteric in its focus and more abstract in its approach, but I likewise found it to be a strong story. In an interesting scarcity future in which we follow the fate of a character abandoned by her mother, water itself becomes a character. In the second paragraph we’re told that “Water is a shape shifter,” and in the next page we encounter the following description: “Water was paradox. Aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Floods. Droughts. Mudslides. Tsunamis. Water cut recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroboros remembering.” These descriptive musings cleverly turn out to be more than metaphors and tie in directly to the tale’s surprising ending.

Another gripping yarn is T. L. Huchu’s “HOSTBODS,” which explores what it might be like for folks to rent out their bodies to the minds of others. “I’m here and not here. […] It’s like being ripped out of your skin and having everything shredded and crushed, leaving only that, the largest organ in your body, hollow, while a new skeleton ent. . .”; indeed. Economic desperation involving a medical treatment for his brother has compelled Simon, the protagonist, to lease out his youthful body for five years, a rental period that usually pushes its practitioners to irreversible damage. Plot complications involving Simon’s last renter, Stubbs, exacerbate the situation. Identity transfer is a classic science-fiction idea and has been handled by writers such as Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Robert Silverberg, Anne McCaffrey and many others, but Huchu finds several neat new wrinkles, fashions an immersive first-person experience, and keeps things moving briskly.

I’m also going to single out Pepe Rojo’s “Grey Noise” for special attention. The story posits a future in which journalists have camera implants and are endlessly on the hunt for newsworthy items: “Someone was jumping over an aluminum fence on the opposite side of the terrace. Maybe it was my lucky day, and he was going to commit suicide.” As if this wasn’t bad enough, soon thereafter we’re told: “Suicides don’t pay very well. There are so many every day, and people are so unimaginative that, if you spend a day watching television, you can see at least ten suicides, none of them very spectacular. Seems the last thing that suicides think of is originality.” The grimness and alienation escalate from there. While the technology involved here hardly feels futuristic, the social commentary is as timely and biting as ever.

Finally, Efe Tokunbo takes us to a future Lagos in “Proposition 23.” Definitions of personhood have shifted greatly, and the protagonist lawman must wrestle with the implications and consequences of the titular proposition: “I have an idea for a reg that I shall call Proposition 23. It will state that in law AIs are recognized as one in the same as the corporations whose system mainframes they operate, thus ensuring that AIs are regarded as citizens. A citizen cannot be artificially limited from using their intellect.” In this novella Tokunbo creates a rich narrative peopled—no pun intended—with well-developed characters, which brings the anthology to an explosive finale.

I found a number of the anthology’s other stories thought-provoking and entertaining, and it was a pleasure to re-read Kelly’s masterful “Bernardo’s House,” but I’ll admit some tales felt less convincing than others. Michalis Manolios’s “The Quantum Mommy,” for example, boasts a classic science-fictional set-up involving quantum duplication, but its ending seems implausible. The global warming future of Liz Williams’s “Loosestrife,” which sees much of London underground, is nicely understated, but again the final reveal didn’t quite strike me as true. Carlos Hernandez provides some mordant comic relief in “The International Studbookof the Giant Panda,” in which a woman undergoes a transformation into a . . . giant panda. The notion of extreme body modification, again involving humans and animals, recurs in Clelia Farris’s “Creative Surgery”, which made me think of David D. Levine’s superbly poignant “I Hold My Father’s Paws.”

Future Fiction deals in arresting themes and never shies away from polemical subject matter. Many of the stories tend to be of novella length, and they occasionally overstay their welcome. On the plus side, I thought the translators did solid work and the prose mostly read smoothly to me; it was interesting to at times grapple with prose rhythms quite different from the ones I’m used to. Despite some potential shortcomings, then, I’m hopeful that this enterprise will do well and this will prove to be the first volume in a series. I understand that with an editorial undertaking as ambitious as this one, the takeoff may be a little shaky, but I’m happy to go along for the ride knowing that the sky’s the limit.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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